Shoulder Check Hockey – Where everyone wins

The following column originally appeared in the Sun Post and Sun Sailor in March, 2024.  It’s being published in other APG of East Central Minnesota suburban and rural Mn newspapers during March.


Shoulder Check hockey – Where everyone wins

By Joe Nathan


“On the ice, you want to be tough. Off the ice, it’s OK to reach out and not necessarily be tough. It’s very important to look for help if you need it and to be there to support your teammates.” That’s what 17-year-old defenseman Jake Pellicane told me about a remarkable program he’s helping lead, called Shoulder Check. As Minnesotans enjoy state hockey tournaments, this is something to consider. It’s a hopeful, helpful idea that’s come out of tragedy – a Connecticut high school student and hockey player who unexpectedly took his own life in 2022.

Hayden Thorsen (courtesy of Rob Thorsen)

The idea is simple: Players put their hands on the shoulders of another player, look into their eyes and tell them things like, “I’m here for you. I care about you.”

Pellicane, from Frederick Gunn School in Connecticut, told me: “Incorporating the Shoulder Check program into my school was super important. It gives people the awareness that it’s OK to ask for help and lets them know that they are not alone; they can trust people to be there for them no matter how hard times may be.” He also pointed out, “After introducing Shoulder Check to my school, I noticed people reaching out to others and checking in on their peers a lot more, especially with guys on the hockey team.”

Jake & Hayden (photo courtesy of Adelle Pellicane)

The late Hayden Thorsen, who attended Darien High School in Connecticut, is the young man who inspired Shoulder Check, which is spreading throughout the country. It’s received attention not only at the high school level but also in the National Hockey League. Rob Thorsen, Hayden’s father, told me that for example, the Washington Capitals NHL team “had us to their stadium to share the idea with 18,000 fans.” High school hockey players in Illinois, New York, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and British Columbia have adopted the idea. As he explained, “We’re trying to make kindness a contact sport.”

Hayden Thorsen (courtesy of Rob Thorsen)

Jamison Maher, known as “J.J.” to her friends, is a Darien High School hockey player who strongly supports the Shoulder Check program. She noticed that after introducing the idea at her school: “Teammates surrounding me have begun to speak more freely about their feelings and have become more empathetic to others on our team. If everyone can check in and make contact with others, it will lead to kindness, empathy, and compassion, which is all some people may need. If every person checked in on one another it would lead to a greater community and more honesty within it. “

JJ Maher & Friend – photo by Susan Z Maher, in Darien Times

Her message to others? “Realize how much of an impact they can have with even a small action such as just asking if someone is OK, because small actions can make so much of a difference in someone else’s life and your own.”

JJ Maher

Rob Thorsen wants to encourage young people: “Reach out. Check in. Make contact.” He’d be glad to talk with students, parents and coaches. The best way to reach him is via his website:

Jake Pellicane’s mother, Adele, told me: “It’s so easy to hide your true feelings in the world of social media and technology. The gesture of a hand on a shoulder, a check in, the real human touch, contact and connection can make a world of difference.”

Joe Nathan is co-director of the Center for School Change. He was a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president. Reactions welcome: